Etymology and Historical Context:
The word identity is of multiple origins. It’s meaning is borrowed from both French and Latin. For instance, during the 4th through the 14th century the Latin identitat-, identitas was referred to the quality of being the same. This Latin word was formed to provide a translation equivalent for the ancient Greek ταὐτότης identity. In 1756 the French coined the term identité, which meant a sense of individuality and personality. Thus, by 1801, the word identity began to form into the idea of a “distinct impression of a single person or thing presented to or perceived by others” (OED).
By the early 1800s a transition from the classical meaning is apparent in texts such as Rip Van Winkle. As Young Adult Literature grew in popularity over time, so did the apparent subject of identity. This evolution is significant because it has changed our sense of what identity means. Specifically during the 1960s through the 1980s, novels like S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and Lockhart’s We Were Liars included the concept of contemporary realism in regards to identity.
Synonyms for the modern meaning of identity include: Personality, Character, Existence, Status, Self, Individuality, and Name.
Overtime these related words have propelled the popularity and significance for the meaning of identity. The context of the word, of course, shapes how it is perceived and understood. In modern times it is common to relate the word identity into two categories: self-identity and group-identity. In psychology there is special interest in the framework of self-identity classified as the ego, or the personal idiosyncrasies that determine one person from another. Organizing self-knowledge and self-esteem is a process of identity achievement. Social Anthropology frequently analyzes the individual in connection to the overall social context. Philosophy has long been interested in the concept of identity dating back to Descartes with his famous quote: “I think, therefore I am” (Shorto 10). The implications of this term is as various as the research behind it.
Criticism and Scholars in Literature for Young Adults:
The idea of “identity” attached to the world and objects is more stable and unchanging. When attached to or associated with a person, “identity” can be something that is undeveloped or ever-changing. In her book “Young Adult Literature and Adolescent Identity Across Cultures and Classrooms, Janet Alsup says, “Identity in narrative terms, does not exist until one’s story is told..one’s story is one’s identity…An identity is always “in process.” That is, no identity is ever fixed or stable” (48) Alsup suggest that identity is always changing. “every discourse that one uses in the development (or emergence) of one’s identity will have an indelible impact on the ever-changing nature of one’s identity” (48) (the world and authors see it different)
Alsup also identifies another aspect of evolving identity in adolescents with “sexual identity…emergent adolescent identity development” (49).
Judith K. Franzak, in his article “Hopelessness and Healing: Racial Identity in Young Adult Literature,” talks about the importance of allowing students to experience racial identity through young adult literature, reading it through a racial identity lens. He suggests books such as Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper. It is about a young African American man responsible for killing someone in a drunk driving accident. By studying texts like Tears of a Tiger, students can explore “concepts of justice, healing, and hope.”
Franzak’s article is just one example of why young adults could benefit from reading about different types of identities in literature.
Examples of Identity in Young Adult Literature:
The idea of “identity” can serve as a major stumbling block for adolescents. During a time when their bodies and brains are physically changing, they are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in the world, or even where they belong in their home/neighborhood setting. Along with figuring out their personal identity, they are faced with learning about and coming to accept cultural identity, racial identity, identity in social groups, and even sexual identity. Below are examples of finding one’s identity in the above listed compartments in one’s life:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton- Ponyboy battles between finding his own identity, or place where he fits in, along with being able to identity himself with his gang. He battles to be tough but is clearly soft and innocent deep down, as told by Jonny who tells him to “Stay gold, Ponyboy” (148) or, in other words, to stay himself–to stay innocent.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart- Candice’s family identifies as “perfect” to the outside looking in. Her mom strives fervently to keep up the Sinclair’s “family” identity: “No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure. We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The kids begin to notice this fake forced family identity and work to knock it down to be able to show who they really are.
BOMB by Steven Sheinkin- Sheinkin takes the readers through a journey of the progress, leaps, and bounds the United States took to construct and finish the first atomic bomb. One can feel the strong sense of national identity as the United States races to finish the first atomic bomb and are successful. The attack of Pearl Harbor and counterattack on Japan helps the readers feel a sense of pride and defense for their country.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang- Yang includes Chinese characters that are identified by stereotypes created by Americans. The main protagonist becomes ashamed of his culture, but in the end learns the importance honoring and being proud of your racial and cultural identity.
Witness by Karen Hesse- Racial and religious identity make all the difference in this young adult book. Because Leanora Sutter is black and Esther Hirsh is a Jew, the KKK and other people in the time feel have aggressive feelings and thoughts towards the two young girls. Hesse writes the success of characters standing up for what they believe despite their racial and religious differences.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson- Melinda’s high school is dominated by cliques and clubs that define whether you are a somebody or a “nobody.” Instead of focusing on the importance of identifying yourself with a “group,” Anderson shows through her protagonist, Melinda, that there are more important things in life than “fitting in.” More important is to speak up even when it is the hard thing to do.
The need to include so many aspects of a young adult’s personal journey of finding oneself is an important task for authors to attempt to write about. Since there are so many forms of the word “identity” (including individual and group), there is a demand for a wide array of Young Adult Literature presenting this topic. Additionally, the concept of identity is central to many works, for it is relatable struggle that many Young Adults face.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York, 1999. Print.
Brook Press: New York, 2012. Print.
Hesse, Karen. Witness. Scholastic Press: New York, 2001. Print.
Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. Penguin Group (USA) Inc: New York, 2008. Print.
“identity, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. May 2016.
Lockhart, E. We Were Liars. Delacorte Press: New York, 2014. Print.
Sheinkin, Steve. BOMB: the race to build–and steal–the world’s most dangerous weapon. Roaring Brook Press: New York, 2012. Print.
Weinreich, Peter, and Wendy Saunderson. Analysing Identity: Cross-cultural, Societal, and Clinical Contexts. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second Books: New York & London, 2006. Print.